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Regardless of your opinions of the Go programming language, the
primary implementation of Go, gc, is an incredible piece of software
engineering. Everyone ought to be blown away by it! Yet not only is it
undervalued in general, even the Go community itself doesn’t fully
appreciate it. It’s not perfect, but it has unique features never before
seen in a toolchain.
In this article, when I say “Go” I’m referring to the gc compiler.
Since Go 1.5, Go is implemented in Go. It also has no external
dependencies, so to build Go only a Go compiler is required. On my
laptop, building the latest version of Go takes only 43 seconds. That
includes the compiler, linker, all cross-compilers, and the standard
$ tar xzf go1.13.6.src.tar.gz
$ cd go/src/
Cross-compiling Go — as in to build a Go toolchain for another platform
supported by Go — only requires setting a couple of environment
GOARCH). So, in a mere 43 seconds I can compile an
entire toolchain for any supported host! If you already have a Go
compiler on your system, there’s no reason to bother with binary
releases. Just grab the source and build it. All can manage their own
toolchain with ease!
Anyone who’s ever built a GCC or Clang+LLVM toolchain, especially
anyone who’s built cross-compiler toolchains, should find this situation
totally bonkers. How could it possibly be so easy and so fast? GCC’s
configure script wouldn’t even finish before Go was already
Yes, this comparison is a bit apples and oranges. Both GCC and LLVM are
more advanced compilers and produce much more efficient code, so of
course there’s more to them, and of course they take longer to build.
But does that completely justify the difference? This goes double for
GCC and LLVM cross-compiler toolchains, which are, for the most part,
very complex and difficult to build.
If you don’t already have Go, all you need is a C compiler and the Go
1.4 source code. Bootstrapping through Go 1.4 is easy, and
I’ve done it a number of times. I keep a copy of the Go 1.4 tarball just
for this reason.
How Go could improve: The linker could be better. Binaries are
already too big, and getting bigger with each release. This problem is
acknowledged by the Go developers:
The original linker was also simpler than it is now and its
implementation fit in one Turing award winner’s head, so there’s
little abstraction or modularity. Unfortunately, as the linker grew
and evolved, it retained its lack of structure, and our sole Turing
award winner retired.
The story for native interop (cgo) isn’t great either and
requires trading away Go’s biggest strengths.
Go has decentralized package management — or, more accurately, module
management. There’s no central module manager or module registration. To
use a Go module, it need only be hosted on a reachable network with a
valid HTTPS certificate. Modules are named by a module path that
includes its network location. This means there’s no land grab for
popular module names.
An organization using Go does not need to trust an external package
repository (PyPI, etc.), nor do they need to run an internal package
repository for their own internal packages. In general it’s sufficient
just to leverage the organization’s already-existing source control
Dependencies are locked to a particular version cryptographically. The
upstream source cannot change a published module for those that already
depend on it. They could still publish a new version with hostile
changes, but one should be cautious about updating dependencies —
a deliberate action — or even having dependencies in the first
With decentralized module management, you might think that each
dependency host is a single point of failure — and you would be exactly
right. If any dependency disappears, you can no longer build in a fresh
checkout. Go has a solution for this: a module proxy. Before fetching
the dependency directly, Go (optionally, configured via
checks with a module proxy that may have cached the dependency. This
eliminates the single point of failure. Google hosts a free module proxy
service for the internet, but organizations should probably run their
own module proxy internally, at least for external dependencies. This
neatly solves the left-pad problem.
Honestly, this is a breath of fresh air. Decentralized modules are great
idea and avoid most of the issues of a centralized package repositories.
How Go could improve: Go’s module management is a little too gung-ho
about HTTPS and certificates. The module documentation is still
incomplete, and the only way to get answers to some of my questions was
either to find the relevant source code in Go or to simply experiment.
Normally I could experiment using my local system, but Go refuses to do
anything with modules unless I go through HTTPS with valid certificates.
Needing to do bunch of pointless configuration — creating a dummy CA,
dummy localhost certificates, and setting it all up — really kills my
momentum and motivation, and it delayed me in learning the new module
system. Before modules, Go supported an
-insecure flag, which was
great for this sort of experimentation, but they removed it out of fear
of misuse. I’ll decide my own risks, thank you very much.
An example of a question without a documented answer: If my module path
example.com/foo but my web server 301 redirects this request to
example.com/foo/, will Go follow this redirect and re-append
?go-get=1? (Yes.) Did I want to configure an HTTPS server just to test
Update: I’ve been alerted that Go 1.14 will introduce
GOINSECURE as a finer-grained form of the old
This nicely solves my experimentation issue!
I still haven’t even gotten to one of the most powerful and unique
module features — a feature which the Go developers initially didn’t
want to include. If you have a
vendor/ directory at the root of your
module, and you use
-mod=vendor when compiling, Go will look in that
directory for modules. Go’s build system before modules (
GOPATH) had a
This is called vendoring and the practice pre-dates Go itself. Just
check your dependency sources directly into source control alongside
your own sources and hook them into your build. Organizations will often
use this internally to lock down dependencies and to avoid depending on
external resources. Typically, vendoring is a lot of work. The project’s
build system must cooperate with the dependency’s build system. Then
eventually you may want to update a vendored dependency, which may
require more build changes.
These issues have led to the rise of header libraries and
amalgamations in C and C++: libraries that are trivial to
integrate into any project.
Go’s module system fully automates vendoring, which it can do
because it already orchestrates builds. A single command populates the
vendor/ directory with all of the module’s current dependencies:
Normally you might follow this up by checking it into source control,
but that’s not the only way it’s useful. Instead a project could merely
vendor/ directory in its release source tarball. That
tarball would be the entire, standalone source for that release. With
all external dependencies packed into the tarball, the program could be
built entirely offline on any system with a Go compiler. This is
incredibly useful for me personally.
Some open source projects not written in Go have dependencies-included
releases like this (example), but it’s a ton of work. So, of
course, it’s usually not done. However, any Go project (not using cgo)
can accomplish this trivially without even thinking about it. This is
a such big deal, and nobody’s talking about it!
There’s lots of discussion about Go the programming language, but I
hardly see discussion about the amazing engineering that’s gone into Go
itself. It’s an under-appreciated piece of technology!